This content originally appeared here. Republished with permission.
By Alokika Patel
I know it has been a while since I have written. I know a lot has changed since the last time I’ve written anything. I’ve changed. The way I view the world has changed. The way that I understand life has changed. The way that I appreciate what I have been blessed with has changed. I know how dramatic all of that sounds, and honestly, I have been reflecting a lot this past month and I can confidently say that there is no better way to put it.
For those that do not know, my father passed away on July 22nd. From then to now, I think I have said these words, written emails, and attended to phone calls where I’ve had to utter these words a total of 1,000,000 times. Somehow, none of it felt like real life until I left home to come back to continue school and sat down for the first time alone in my bedroom.
I had to preface this post with the information above because this post is not similar to my other posts. These are my thoughts. These are my emotions. This is my way of processing. This is my way of raising awareness, and I only hope that I can sufficiently articulate something that I have learned through this entire process.
My father was a cancer patient. He fought his battle for a long time, but in this past year, something had changed. The same man that teamed up with me against mom, mimicked actors he saw on TV, sent me a series of gifs when I was stressed, somehow seemed a little disconnected from everything. Through this past year, he would tell “I am tired and I have no interest in anything.” He would get so frustrated because there were weeks where he felt like he did not want to even turn on the TV, read a book, even eat a meal or open his eyes and talk to someone. I remember telling him that it was probably how much the chemotherapy or the cancer was taking out of him. I remember drilling him to try to do something because the faster he got up on his feet, the better his recovery would be from that chemo cycle.
He would tell me that his chest felt heavy. He would tell me that he felt like he could not take a deep breath. He felt like a tight band was tied around his head and was giving him headaches. His heart rate, especially in the last 6 months, had not come down below 100. Somehow, I had managed to convince myself that this had to be due to his tumors. Maybe I was right or maybe I was wrong.
Fast forward to now. Since I came back to school, I had to make up all of my exams from the summer semester while keeping up with my fall semester classes. Medical school is not easy as it is, and then to add the stress of catching up, the sadness of everything that had just happened, and the adjustment to the new level of responsibilities I held was a lot, to say the least. During these past two weeks, I found myself having trouble breathing. I would try to take a deep breath and I could fall myself falling short. I would feel nauseous from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I would check my pulse, which happened to be racing through different moments of the day.
I started to think there was something physically wrong with me. First thought, it had to be my diabetes right? I was definitely making sure to eat but that did not mean that my eating patterns were the same as before. I am blessed to not have any other illnesses, so I really, really wanted to blame diabetes. I would check my blood sugars and I would check my ketone levels. No, it was not the diabetes. It had to be something else. But what was it?
It took me days and multiple conversations with my mom and my roommate to realize that what I was feeling was anxiety. I’m a medical student. We learn about anxiety on paper. We hear about the debilitating effects anxiety can have on someone’s life. I have heard first-hand stories of friends and family having really bad anxiety. But truly, I had not understood the magnitude of anxiety and the effect it could have on physical manifestations.
Upon reflecting on my current experiences and the way I listened to my dad describe his previous experiences, I realized that I like to correlate any physical symptoms to a physical ailment. It is easier, isn’t it? If dad is having symptoms of fatigue or restlessness, it always had to be due to cancer, didn’t it? If I was having a racing pulse and difficulty breathing, didn’t that have to mean that my blood sugar was out of control?
I am here to tell you it doesn’t. As part of my osteopathic education, we are taught that the mind, body, and spirit are interconnected. So how could I not understand that mental health could present itself in physical manifestations? Or that physical health in my dad’s case could present itself as deteriorated mental health?
Sharing my story, all I want to do is raise awareness. Although we are blessed to live in a society where mental health is now being talked about more than before, there is still a huge stigma, especially culturally. If we pride ourselves on self-care and self-preservation, why are we so scared to share our personal stories and personal discoveries with others around us? Why are we so scared to realize it when it’s affecting us or our loved ones? Awareness starts with you and me. Recognition is the first step to acceptance and reaching out for help. Mental health is physical health and physical health is mental health.
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